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The History of Tikal

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The History of Tikal

Tikal

Photo by Paula Newton

The History of Tikal:

Tikal (tee-KAL) is a ruined Maya city located in the northern Petén province of Guatemala. During the heyday of the Maya Empire, Tikal was a very important and influential city, controlling vast stretches of territory and dominating smaller city-states. Like the rest of the great Maya cities, Tikal fell into decline around 900 A.D. or so and was eventually abandoned. It is currently an important archaeological and tourism site.

Early History at Tikal:

Archaeological records near Tikal go back to about 1000 B.C. and by 300 B.C. or so it was already a thriving city. By the Maya early Classic era (roughly 300 A.D.) it was an important urban center, thriving as other nearby cities declined. The Tikal royal lineage traced their roots to Yax Ehb' Xook, a powerful early ruler who lived sometime during the Preclassic period.

The Peak of Tikal's Power:

At the dawn of the Maya Classic era, Tikal was one of the most important cities in the Maya region. In 378, the ruling Tikal dynasty was replaced by representatives of the mighty northern city of Teotihuacan: it is unclear if the takeover was military or political. Other than a change in the royal family, this does not seem to have altered Tikal’s rise to prominence. Soon Tikal was the dominant city in the region, controlling several other smaller city-states. Warfare was common, and sometime in the late sixth century, Tikal was defeated by Calakmul, Caracol, or a combination of the two, causing a gap in the city’s prominence and historical records. Tikal bounced back, however, once again becoming a great power. Population estimates for Tikal at its peak vary: one estimate is that of respected researcher William Haviland, who in 1965 estimated a population of 11,000 in the city center and 40,000 in the surrounding areas.

Tikal Politics and Rule:

Tikal was ruled by a powerful dynasty which sometimes, but not always, passed power down from father to son. This unnamed family ruled Tikal for generations until 378 A.D. when Great Jaguar Paw, last of the line, was apparently defeated militarily or somehow deposed by Fire is Born, who was most likely from Teotihuacán, a mighty city located near present-day Mexico City. Fire is Born started a new dynasty with close cultural and trade ties to Teotihuacán. Tikal continued on its path to greatness under the new rulers, who introduced cultural elements such as pottery design, architecture and art in the Teotihuacán style. Tikal aggressively pursued its dominance of the whole southeastern Maya region. The city of Copán, in present-day Honduras, was founded by Tikal, as was the city of Dos Pilas.

War with Calakmul:

Tikal was an aggressive superpower which frequently scrapped with its neighbors, but its most important conflict was with the city-state of Calakmul, located in the present-day Mexican state of Campeche. Their rivalry began sometime in the sixth century as they vied for vassal states and influence. Calakmul was able to turn some of Tikal’s vassal states against their former ally, most notably Dos Pilas and Quiriguá. In 562 Calakmul and its allies defeated Tikal in battle, beginning a hiatus in Tikal’s power. Until 692 A.D. there would be no carved dates on Tikal monuments and the historical records of this time are scant. In 695, Jasaw K’awiil I defeated Calakmul, helping propel Tikal back to its former glory.

The Decline of Tikal:

The Maya civilization began to crumble around 700 A.D. and by 900 A.D. or so it was a shadow of its former self. Teotihuacán, once such a powerful influence on Maya politics, itself fell into ruin about 700 and was no longer a factor in Maya life, although its cultural influences in art and architecture remained. Historians disagree on why the Maya civilization collapsed: it may have been due to famine, disease, warfare, climate change or any combination of those factors. Tikal, too, declined: the last recorded date on a Tikal monument is 869 A.D. and historians think that by 950 A.D. the city was essentially abandoned.

Rediscovery and Restoration:

Tikal was never completely "lost:" locals always knew of the city throughout the colonial and republican eras. Travelers occasionally visited, such as John Lloyd Stephens in the 1840's, but Tikal's remoteness (getting there entailed several days' trek through steamy jungles) kept most visitors away. The first archaeological teams arrived in the 1880's, but it wasn't until an airstrip was built in the early 1950's that archaeology and study of the site began in earnest. In 1955, the University of Pennsylvania began a long project at Tikal: they remained until 1969 when the Guatemalan government began research there.

Tikal Today:

Decades of archaeological work have uncovered most of the major buildings, although a good portion of the original city is still awaiting excavation. There are many pyramids, temples and palaces for exploring. Highlights include the Plaza of Seven Temples, the Palace at the Central Acropolis and the Lost World complex. If you're visiting the historical site, a guide is highly recommended, as you're certain to miss interesting details if you're not looking for them. Guides can also translate glyphs, explain the history, take you to the most interesting buildings and more.

Tikal is one of Guatemala's most important tourism sites, enjoyed annually by thousands of visitors from all over the world. Tikal National Park, which included the archaeological complex and the surrounding rainforest, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although the ruins themselves are fascinating, the natural beauty of Tikal National Park merits a mention as well. The rainforests around Tikal are beautiful and home to many birds and animals, including parrots, toucans and monkeys.

Sources:

McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.

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